Born c. 1966; adopted son of a Canadian family; raised in Natobico, Ontario, Canada. Addresses: Record company-- Arista Records, 6 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Since the formation of his self-named band in late 1985, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jeff Healey has attracted the attention of many with his searing guitar licks and imaginative blend of rock, jazz, and blues. Early in his career Healey was hailed as a blues guitar hero. According to Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player, B.B. King once told Healey "I've never seen anything like it. Your execution is the best I've ever seen. Stick with it, and you'll be bigger than Stevie Ray Vaughan, Stanley Jordan, and B.B. King."
Adopted into a middle-class Canadian family, Healey grew up in Natobico, an outlying suburb of Toronto. Healey lost his sight from eye cancer at age one. Two years later he received a small acoustic guitar, which he played flat on his lap, in open tuning with a slide until someone at the School for the Blind in Brantford showed him standard tuning. Healey attended the School for the Blind through the seventh grade and then the local high school.
When he first started playing the guitar, Healey often played country music in the style of Chet Atkins and Luther Perkins, but his musical experience was wide-ranging. He played guitar and trumpet in all the jazz and concert bands in his high school, and he and some other students organized a blues-based band--Blue Directions--that played in clubs. While in high school, Healey and his friends liked to listen to music by guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Albert Collins, and Buddy Guy. Although he did not graduate from high school, Healey privately studied music theory, earning a certificate in harmony and arranging. The young guitarist continued to perform on a free-lance basis, but at that time he did not become a permanent member of any band, Healey claims, because his unconventional style of holding the guitar made other band members uncomfortable.
Healey plays a black Fender Squire Strat, a white standard Strat, and a black Jackson six-and-twelve-string doubleneck on his lap. His right hand picks and strums, while his left runs wildly across the strings of the headboard. "I tried playing guitar the normal way, but I just wasn't very comfortable," declared Healey in an interview with the Oregon Statesman-Journal reporter Ron Cowan, "so I decided to hold it in my lap and work out all the chords that way."
One night in late 1985 Healey and a friend went to hear Texas bluesmaster Albert Collins at a club in Toronto. Healey's friend convinced Collins to let the then nineteen-year-old Healey sit in for one song; Collins kept Healey on stage for an hour and invited him to come back a few nights later to play with Collins's friend, guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. After the later performance, Healey was flooded with calls for club dates. So he quickly put together a trio with drummer Tom Stephen, whom he knew from jam sessions, and studio bassist Joe Rockman, a friend of Stephen.
Stephen, who did not learn to play drums until he was twenty-eight, was happy to leave his job as an urban planner for the Ontario Land Corporation. After one rehearsal Rockman recognized the band's potential and cancelled other commitments. Shortly after its formation, the Jeff Healey Band toured extensively (200-300 concerts annually) in Canada for about two years. Not wanting to bore audiences visually, Healey adopted a more active concert style, roaming the stage, picking strings with his teeth, and playing with his guitar behind his head.
The self-managed band cut a single and made a video demonstration tape with the Toronto-based Forte Productions. Stephen presented the tape to New York City record producers but he returned, unable to spark any interest--or so he thought. Several weeks later the Jeff Healey Band was approached and signed by Arista Records.
When the band prepared to make its first recording, it needed a producer, and Jimmy Iovine was Arista's choice. Just as Iovine received the demonstration tape and video, he was asked to line up a band for a movie that needed a soundtrack. It called for a young, blind blues-rock guitarist who played with the guitar flat in his lap. The author of the script for the movie had seen the band in Toronto and been inspired by it. The Jeff Healey Band was asked to record the soundtrack and offered speaking parts in Road House, starring Patrick Swayze of Dirty Dancing fame.
While Iovine and the band started recording the twenty songs that make up the soundtrack in March and April of 1988, the movie itself was filmed in June and July. In the midst of the movie work, the Jeff Healey Band recorded its own album, See the Light, from which "Confidence Man" became a radio hit.
Five of the twelve songs on See the Light were composed by Healey, who wrote and taped hours of songs as a teenager. "I write about things that everyday people understand," Healey declared in an interview with Musician 's Ted Drozdowski. "I won't write about politics, which a lot of people can take or leave. But love between human beings is a natural thing, so we can all relate to it. And if I get to play some guitar in the bargain, then everybody's happy."
Healey is sometimes annoyed by the stereotypes that blindness engenders, but he does not view his lack of sight as a handicap. He has had few problems during performances with the band.
As a child, Healey began a record collection that now numbers over 10,000 early jazz, blues, and gospel 78s and reissued albums. His knowledge of diverse musicians is encyclopedic, but his all-time favorite is trumpeter Louis Armstrong. At one time Healey had considered a career in radio broadcasting. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company for a while and has an hour-long radio show on CIUT, the University of Toronto FM station.
When asked about his plans, Healey told Obrecht, "I've really given up making plans because ... you never know what's going to happen. When something comes along that I want to do, then I'll do it. The two main goals in life are to be happy and successful, and I would like to be both. That would satisfy me."
by David Collins
Jeff Healey's Career
Began playing guitar at age three; made performance debut at age six; played guitar and trumpet in school jazz and concert bands; formed blues band while in high school; formed the Jeff Healey Band with drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman in Toronto in 1985. Appeared in motion picture Road House, 1989.
Jeff Healey's Awards
Toronto Music Award for best new band and best new guitarist, 1987.
- Selective Works
- See the Light (includes "See the Light," "Confidence Man," "Hide-away," "Nice Problem to Have," "Blue Jean Blues," "My Little Girl"), Arista Records, 1989.
- Hell to Pay Arista, 1990.
- (Baltimore, Maryland) Sun, April 7, 1989. Guitar Player, August 1989.
- Melody Maker, November 19, 1988. Musician, March 1989.
- The Oregonian (Portland), October 21, 1988.
- (Salem) Oregon Statesman-Journal, October 24, 1988.